Senate confirms John Lee for 7th Circuit: First Asian American judge on Chicago-based appeals court

Lee was confirmed on a 50-44 roll call.

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U.S. District Court Judge John Lee at his May 11, 2022 confirmation hearing for a spot on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Judge John Lee at his May 11, 2022 confirmation hearing for a spot on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senate Judiciary Committee video screenshot

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed U.S. District Judge John Lee for a spot on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, making him the first Asian American judge on the panel and the second person of color on the Chicago-based appeals court.

President Joe Biden nominated Lee in April. Diversifying the federal judiciary, dominated by white males since this nation was founded, has been a Biden priority,

Lee was confirmed on a 50-44 roll call, with six senators not voting. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined with Democrats in the confirmation vote.

Lee, serving as a judge in the Northern District of Illinois since 2012, was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1968.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Judiciary Committee chair said in a statement, “Judge Lee is an embodiment of the American dream.”

“Born to Korean parents and immigrating to Chicago at the age of four, he has dedicated his career to public service and the evenhanded administration of justice. When he was confirmed by voice vote to the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Lee became the first Korean American to serve as an Article III (District Court) judge in Illinois. Today, he makes history again as the first Asian American judge to serve on the Seventh Circuit.”

Lee received his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1989 and his Harvard Law School degree in 1992.

When he was nominated in April, he was presiding over the case of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, and ex-chief of staff Timothy Mapes. Mapes was also the Democratic Party of Illinois executive director when Madigan — himself under criminal indictment — was chair.

During his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on May 11, Lee drew sharp questions from some Republican senators over a 2020 ruling he made in one of the first federal lawsuits stemming from COVID-19 shut-down orders. He ruled against a church asserting the shut-down ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker violated First Amendment rights.

Former President Barack Obama tapped Lee for a district court spot on Nov. 10, 2011, and he was confirmed on May 7, 2012. At that time he was an equity partner specializing in federal civil litigation at Freeborn & Peters LLP, a firm he joined in 1999.

Before that, he was at the Chicago law firms Mayer Brown LLP from 1994 to 1996 and at Grippo & Elden LLC from 1996 to 1999. Lee launched his legal career at the Justice Department as a trial attorney in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division. He formerly served on the boards of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago and the Asian Human Services of Chicago.

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